White Island Volcano

New Zealand Authorities File Charges Over Fatal White Island Volcano Eruption 

Officials in New Zealand have filed charges against 13 parties that supposedly failed to perform their proper health and safety obligations when doing wellness visits on the White Island volcano to see its eruption status. When the volcano erupted last year it killed 22 individuals as a result of these failings. 

White Island is an active volcano that is also referred to by its Maori name, Whakaari. It’s located right off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island and was one of the countries most popular tourism destinations before it erupted in December 2019 and killed a multitude of local tour guides and visitors. 

WorkSafe New Zealand is the company that acts as the country’s workplace health and safety regulator. This Monday WorkSafe announced that it had filed charges against 10 separate organizations and three specific individuals for allegedly not performing standard, and “reasonably practicable,” health and safety procedures that were put in place to protect White Island workers and visitors from a potential eruption. 

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The 10 organizations are facing a maximum fine of 1.5 million New Zealand dollars, which is equivalent to $1.1 million. The three individuals are facing a maximum fine of what’s equivalent to $211,000 in America; 300,000 New Zealand dollars. WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes recently spoke with the press after making the lawsuit announcement. 

“This was an unexpected event, but that does not mean it was unforeseeable and there is a duty on operators to protect those in their care.”

In the weeks leading up to the eruption, New Zealand volcano monitoring service GeoNet raised the alert level on White Island to a Level 2 out of 5. A Level 2 alert means that at the time there was “moderate to heightened volcanic unrest,” and surrounding individuals and communities should be concerned. 

When the blast initially happened, 47 individuals were on the island,  including honeymooners and young families on vacation. Parkes stated that the hardest part of this whole ordeal is knowing that those people were going to the island with the “expectation that systems were in place to make sure they made it home safely.” 

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“As a nation we need to look at this tragedy and ask if we are truly doing enough to ensure our mothers, fathers, children and friends come home to us healthy and safe at the end of each day.”

Parkes described the investigation that preceded the charges being filed this week as the “most extensive and complex in WorkSafe’s history.” WorkSafe didn’t name the specific organizations and individuals charged – as they may seek anonymity when the case is first heard in December of this year – but they did mention that they weren’t investigating any of the organizations involved in the rescue and recovery of the victims after the eruption, as all of the charges relate to failings that occured weeks before the blast, not how it was handled during. 

GNS Science – a Crown research organization that monitors volcanic activity – has released a statement revealing it’s one of the 10 organizations being charged in the suit. “We stand by our people and our science which we will continue to deliver for the benefit of New Zealand,” they wrote. 

The National Emergency Management Agency has also confirmed that they’re facing charges. The Agency is a government entity which handles the country’s entire civil defense; which includes defense from natural disasters. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said this week that her thoughts were with the families of those who experienced a tragic loss as a result of this eruption, and hopefully these court proceedings can serve some justice.